Running into a blank 404 page is one of the most frustrating experiences someone can have on the internet – right up there with being rick-rolled, being followed by targeted ads, or finding irrelevant spam mail in your folder.
There you are, scouring the internet for information on a topic or how to fix whatever problem you’re having. You finally find the specific answer you’re looking for, you click on the link, and rather than finding solutions or answers or guidance you’re greeted with a big, blank, 404 page with nothing on it.
Nuisances like this would make anyone want to tear their hair out after a while. This is what happens when your website’s inbound links become broken.
Websites have a way of getting lost or broken backlinks as time goes on. Leaving them unchecked is a completely avoidable waste of resources. It takes on average 35+ hours just to make a single landing page, and easily 165+ to make a website, and the average cost of a business website can range from $2,000 to $75,000.
When you leave broken backlinks unfixed, you essentially let all those hours of skilled manpower go to waste. That doesn’t even include what you’re losing on your SEO efforts that probably took at least a few months just to gain traction.
To prevent that from happening, we’ll walk through what broken backlinks are, why they hurt your website, and how to identify and fix them before they can.
What Are Broken Backlinks
A broken backlink is a link between two websites that no longer works. They are also known as broken inbound links or external links, to contrast with internal links that link two pages within your own website. Broken backlinks often lead to a blank page with a 404 error message.
Internal links can be found with most webcrawler tools and are relatively straightforward to fix. Broken external links are a little more tricky – they require more deliberate maintenance and auditing to seek out and are more cumbersome to rectify. This is because you’re not in direct control of the webpage where the link originates, and what its destination URL is.
Causes of Broken Backlinks
Backlinks can become broken or misdirected for several reasons, and they’re likely to accumulate as a website grows, adds more content, and builds a bigger backlink profile.
The most common cause is when a webpage is renamed or moved without setting up a redirect.
Other factors can cause broken backlinks as well, including:
- Plugins or broken elements and code within the page
- The referring domain with the original link is taken down or goes offline
- The webpage is moved to a new URL
- The URL structure of the webpage is changed during a CMS migration
- The link leads to interactive content like videos or PDFs that have been taken off your website’s server
- The referring domain where the link originates from has typos in the URL (missing characters, underscores, etc.)
Why Broken Backlinks Hurt Your SEO
Broken backlinks can go undetected for years and add up to hundreds or thousands of dead links because of all the ways they can happen. While the effect of a single broken link is negligible, lots of broken links can play havoc on your website’s SEO health and become harder to manage the more they accumulate. Some of the reasons why include:
Broken Links Disrupt PageRank
The quality, number, and authoritativeness of your website’s backlinks is one of the most powerful SEO ranking factors. Google uses your websites’ backlinks to determine its quality and trustworthiness and evaluate its PageRank. It also uses the anchor text of your backlinks to better understand what your content is about and how it’s relevant to what your users are trying to find.
When your backlinks become broken, it prevents Google from crawling your website effectively and it stops PageRank from passing between those referring domains to yours. It also depletes your allocated amount for crawling (from Google), and can lead to indexation problems.
Creates a Bad User Experience
Broken backlinks that lead to 404 pages with no other context are frustrating and confusing, and bad news has a way of getting around the internet. 44% of users will tell their friends when they have a bad online experience.
It’s important to remember that search engine algorithms solve for the user. If a user encounters a broken backlink and has no other way to navigate around your site, they will leave your site and cause your bounce rate to go up. Google and other search engines take this into account when it ranks pages on your website. It’s effectively a signal that your website is old, poorly maintained, or no longer used.
Affects Your ROI
Your content and your keyword rankings are there to generate revenue. Ultimately the purpose of your website’s content is to funnel users to the parts of your website where they buy your product or service.
When a user comes to a website seeking information and finds nothing, they’ll probably go to your competitors to find what they’re looking for instead, ultimately making it more likely they’ll do business with them rather than you.
How to Spot Broken Backlinks
The more broken backlinks start to pile up, the more it’ll hurt your user experience and damage your hard-earned SEO keyword rankings. That’s why it’s better to nip them in the bud before they can do any damage through routine website maintenance and technical SEO audits.
Thankfully there are several commonly-used technical SEO tools you can use to find broken backlinks – many of which are free or come bundled with your Google Webmaster account.
Google Analytics is a free way to help you find your broken backlinks that come bundled with your Google Webmaster tools. This won’t help you track the broken external links themselves, but it will help you identify which of your pages have 404 errors so you can redirect their backlinks to your other content.
To make this custom report:
- Go to the Site Content/All Pages tab under Behavior
- Select the date range you want to look at. If you do monthly audits for example, set the date range back to the previous month
- Click the “advanced” option, and set up a filter including Page Title/Containing/404
This will bring up your 404 page URL. Once you click on that, you see all the links that lead to that 404. You can then export a spreadsheet and redirect those links to their intended page, or remove any dead links that are defunct.
Ahrefs Site Explorer
Ahrefs Site Explorer has a broken backlinks report that will give you all of the broken external links leading to your website in a single view. You can also use Ahrefs to do a crawl of your website, then look at your external links and filter out any 4xx status codes.
This way, you can see where all the broken backlinks are coming from, as well as which pages on your website they’re leading to. This is also useful if you want to prioritize your broken backlinks by their Domain Authority and Page Authority for the most effective and immediate results.
How To Fix Broken Backlinks
You don’t want to leave broken backlinks unaddressed. Fixing links depends largely on whether the broken link is internal or external. Assuming that the link is external, you can repair it in one of four ways:
- Ask the hosting website to change the link: if the hosting website made a mistake (for example, if their hyperlink includes typos or missing characters), it creates a poor user experience for their website visitors as well as your own. Get in touch with whoever is in charge of the content that’s linking to you, notify them of the problem, and let them know where they should link to instead
- Set up 301-redirects to Other Pages on Your Website: find other suitable pages that are related to the original content, and have the external links lead there instead. If the original content is unavailable or has been removed from the server, you can use Wayback Machine to find out what it originally looked like
- Replace or Recreate the Missing Content: if there aren’t any suitable replacements for the missing content, you may have to make something similar from scratch, then have the external links redirect to that instead
- Create a Hard 404: let’s say recreating the content or having the links lead somewhere else on your website somehow isn’t an option. In that case, you can at least set up a functional 404 page – an interactive page that exists within your website’s architecture has all its branding, displays your website navigation, and most importantly lets the user move to other parts of your website. That way, your user at least has the option of browsing through your website themselves to find what they need
Broken backlinks are a troublesome website maintenance issue that becomes more problematic the longer it goes unresolved. Thankfully, regular website maintenance and monitoring make this problem manageable before it can do much harm to your website rankings or online reputation.
To sum up, once you find the broken backlinks leading to your website, the best ways to fix them are:
- Ask the hosting website to change the link
- Set up 301-redirects to Other Pages on Your Website
- Replace or Recreate the Missing Content
- Create a Hard 404 Page